The INSIDER Summary:
- Professional Instagrammers thought the app was “shadowbanning” them.
- That meant their posts didn’t show up in hashtag searches and overall engagement went down.
- In reality, it’s because of a bug in the app.
- The whole episode shows that influencers don’t trust Instagram.
A few weeks ago, something sent ripples through some corners of the Instagram world.
Professional Instagram users — like photographers and designers — noticed that engagement with their posts fell off a cliff. Few people liked and commented on their posts, and follower growth slowed to a halt.
Many users feared they were “shadowbanned” from Instagram. They could continue posting, but wouldn’t know that their posts were invisible to everyone else. It’s similar to a now-discontinued punishment on Reddit, where users, without warning, were banned from the site.
In reality, a bug in Instagram’s code — since fixed — along with likely misconceptions about how Instagram treats spam, caused users to think that Instagram’s mysterious moderators unfairly targeted them.
Professional influencers and photographers felt a target on their backs.
Instagram’s shadowban, it was theorized, worked differently than Reddit’s. Followers could still see posts from shadowbanned users, but posts wouldn’t show up on Instagram’s “Explore” tab, where users search and look at hashtagged posts.
As one Instagram user who uses the app professionally told INSIDER, The Explore tab is essential for people who want to expand their reach. For pretty much any business that deals in anything visually appealing — which can range from influencer marketers, to professional photographers, to wedding planners — being banned from Instagram can be devastating.
“A lot of people use hashtags because they either reach a lot of people, or because people who follow you may only come across your photos through hashtags rather than their feed,” said the user, who preferred to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from Instagram. “A lot of bloggers prefer to go through hashtags rather than their feed just to discover new accounts and to widen their network.”
The ban, she said, was absolute. Until recently, her photos could not be found on Instagram’s explore tab.
“I have my own hashtag, and every single one of my photos in that hashtag were all gone,” she said. “In any hashtag, they were gone.”
A couple of weeks ago, she and other influencers and photographers interviewed by INSIDER said, posts started appearing on the Explore tab again. But not all of them. And overall engagement isn’t what it once was.
Was Instagram punishing professional Instagrammers?
On a February 28 post on Instagram for Business’s official Facebook page, the company said it understood that users “experienced issues with our hashtag search that caused posts to not be surfaced” and recommended “focusing on your business objective or goal rather than hashtags.”
The Instagram business community didn’t take it well.
“I’ve reported my problem literally 50 times to no avail,” wrote a professional photographer in one of the most-liked comments on the post. “I’ve been ‘shadowbanned’ for the past 3 months. I have done nothing wrong, I use appropriate, unbanned hashtags and post ONCE a day, if not less. Please figure this out.”
Someone even made a site to check if your account is “shadowbanned.” It was used thousands of times, even though people reported that the results were inconsistent.
A viral post on Quora, viewed more than 130,000 times since it was published on April 11, alleged that Instagram’s apparent shadowban was “a clear move by Instagram to control Influencer Marketing,” and said that Facebook, Instagram’s owner, was trying to get business owners to pay for advertising instead of grow their businesses on Instagram organically.
“For Instagram, they have been leaving money on the table and over time, they have been taking steps to take that money back,” wrote Akin Fagbohun. “The only way they can do that is by stopping businesses from reaching audiences through their own methods, forcing them to advertise through them.”
Fagbohun did not respond to INSIDER’s request for comment.
The reality is less scary.
The real explanation for the dip in engagement is much less nefarious. A bug in Instagram’s “Explore” tab, along with spam filters, is what actually quelled engagement.
The bug was fixed on April 12, which matches reports from Instagram users who found the “shadowban” suddenly lifted around that time.
However, other users still complain that their posts have less engagement in the past few weeks, and that some of their posts still don’t show up in Instagram’s “Explore” module.
This seems to be because of Instagram’s spam detection algorithm. Users who post a lot of content in a short period of time with a lot of the same hashtags, and users who use third-party applications, can trigger the algorithm to limit the reach of their posts, like by keeping them off the “Explore” page. And because of the bug, users may now be more sensitive to changes in engagement.
Beth Meyer, a chef and food stylist who runs Recipe for Adventures, told INSIDER that she was “shadowbanned” for a time, but then the ban appeared to be lifted. She’s noticed that other people in professional Instagram communities are still complaining about a “shadowban,” but the way they describe it makes it seem like they’re talking about something else.
“After 3 weeks, it corrected itself,” Meyer wrote in a Facebook message. “I keep seeing new folks say they’ve been shadowbanned, but those folks also say they post 5x per day or use services … which makes me think IG might be trying to crack down on that.”
The whole situation shows that Instagram still has some work to do.
While Instagram’s alleged shadowban turned out to be nonexistent, and the kerfuffle over it misplaced, the episode shows that Instagram has a lot of work to do.
The bug lingered for weeks. The company acknowledged it in a public Facebook post on February 28, but it existed before that. And it wasn’t fixed until the middle of April. In that period of time, businesses owners who depended on Instagram had a harder time growing.
The reaction, too, is telling. Fagbohun’s viral post indicates that a lot of people are deeply anxious that Instagram is going to try to take a bigger slice of the money, and paranoid that it will be at the expense of smaller businesses. While Instagram has been focusing on features like Instagram Stories, the company hasn’t provided much of a public position about the influencers on its platform.
A huge chunk of Instagram’s 700 million monthly users follow businesses on the app. And if Instagram wants to calm those users’ concerns, it needs to be more transparent about what it thinks about Influencers.
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